China and the U.S.

As China continues amassing economic and political clout and an American-led global order appears less sustainable, it becomes frighteningly easy to develop scenarios in which American and Chinese soldiers are killing each other. When there is mistrust at the top, when worldviews are irreconcilable and when each side regards its own leadership as preordained, any nudge will do. Could a collision between American and Chinese warships in the South China Sea, a drive toward national independence in Taiwan, jockeying between China and Japan over islands on which no one wants to live, instability in North Korea or even a spiraling economic dispute provide the spark to a war between China and the U.S. that neither wants?

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  1. shinichi Post author

    A Look Back at Our Coming War With China

    by Carlos Lozada

    It is unfair, but tales of war tend to be more exciting than stories of peace. The same is true, perhaps more so, for warnings of wars to come versus assurances of good will. Dire scenarios of risk and escalation are almost always more captivating than those dissenting voices that explain how to avoid a fight. It is a narrative advantage that hawks enjoy over doves, realists over idealists and those believing in nightmares over those who dream of the alternative.

    The 360-degree rivalry between the United States and China has yielded a barrage of recent books about the possibility of armed conflict breaking out, with plenty of advice on how to forestall it. If “Who lost China?” was an American preoccupation of the early Cold War, “Who lost to China?” threatens to become its contemporary variant. After five decades of engagement between Washington and Beijing, a period that featured both America’s unipolar triumphalism and China’s ascent to economic superpower status, the two countries are now on a “collision course” for war, many of these books assert, even if the rationales are varied and at times contradictory.

    In these works, the antagonists are bound for strife because China has become too strong or because it is weakening; because America is too hubristic or too insecure; because leaders make bad decisions or because the forces of politics, ideology and history overpower individual agency. A sampling of their titles — “Destined for War,” “Danger Zone,” “2034: A Novel of the Next World War” and “The Avoidable War” — reveals the range and limits of the debate.

    I don’t know if the United States and China will end up at war. But in these books, the battle is already raging. So far, the war stories are winning.

    The U.S.-China book club is insular and self-referential, and the one work that all the authors appear obliged to quote is 2017’s “Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?” by Graham Allison, a political scientist at Harvard. He looks at the war between ascendant Athens and ruling Sparta in the fifth century B.C. and echoes Thucydides, the ancient historian and former Athenian general, who argued that “it was the rise of Athens and the fear that this instilled in Sparta that made war inevitable.” Sub in China for Athens and the United States for Sparta, and you get the gist.

    Allison, best known for “Essence of Decision,” his 1971 study of the Cuban missile crisis, does not regard a U.S.-Chinese war as inevitable. But in his book he does consider it more likely than not. “When a rising power threatens to displace a ruling power, the resulting structural stress makes a violent clash the rule, not the exception,” he writes. He revisits 16 encounters between dominant and ascendant powers — Portugal and Spain fighting over trade and empire, the Dutch and British contesting the seas, Germany challenging 20th-century European powers and other confrontations — and found that in 12 of them, the outcome was war.

    As China continues amassing economic and political clout and an American-led global order appears less sustainable, it becomes “frighteningly easy to develop scenarios in which American and Chinese soldiers are killing each other,” Allison warns. When there is mistrust at the top, when worldviews are irreconcilable and when each side regards its own leadership as preordained, any nudge will do. “Could a collision between American and Chinese warships in the South China Sea, a drive toward national independence in Taiwan, jockeying between China and Japan over islands on which no one wants to live, instability in North Korea or even a spiraling economic dispute provide the spark to a war between China and the U.S. that neither wants?” he asks. (In “Destined for War,” this is a rhetorical question.)

    Such story lines are the lifeblood of the U.S.-China literature. Hal Brands and Michael Beckley, senior fellows at the American Enterprise Institute, begin their 2022 book “Danger Zone” with a surprise Chinese invasion of Taiwan set in early 2025. U.S. forces in the western Pacific are too scattered to respond effectively, and soon enough an ailing President Biden is pondering a low-yield nuclear strike against Chinese forces in mainland ports and airfields. “How did the United States and China come to the brink of World War III?” Brands and Beckley ask. Too easily.

    In “The Avoidable War: The Dangers of a Catastrophic Conflict Between the US and Xi Jinping’s China,” Kevin Rudd, a former prime minister of Australia and a longtime scholar of China, imagines 10 distinct plotlines, many revolving around the fate of Taiwan. For instance, what if China seeks to take the island by force and Washington opts to not respond? That would be America’s “Munich moment,” Rudd writes, eviscerating any American moral authority. Even worse would be the United States reacting with military force but then losing the fight, which would “signal the end of the American century.” Half the scenarios in his book, Rudd notes, “involve one form or another of major armed conflict.” And he’s the most dovish of the lot.

    An extended war story is found in “2034,” a work of fiction written by Elliot Ackerman, a novelist and former Marine special operations officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and James Stavridis, a retired four-star admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO. Published in 2021, “2034,” is basically a beach read about how we get to nuclear war. The authors imagine a seemingly chance standoff in the South China Sea between a flotilla of U.S. destroyers and a Chinese trawler toting high-tech intelligence equipment, which in a matter of months escalates into a world war that leaves major cities in ashes, tens of millions of people dead and neither Washington nor Beijing in charge. One of the main characters, a Chinese official with deep U.S. ties, recalls taking a class at Harvard, “a seminar pompously titled The History of War taught by a Hellenophile professor.” If it’s a dig at the ubiquitous Allison, it might also work as a homage, because in “2034,” China and the United States are ensnared by Thucydides.

    In “The Avoidable War,” Rudd cautions that the incentives for Beijing and Washington to escalate hostilities, whether to save lives or save face, “could prove irresistible.” Ackerman and Stavridis follow that script. In their novel, a recklessly hawkish U.S. national security adviser — with the perfect last name of Wisecarver — and a smugly overconfident Chinese defense minister keep going until cities like San Diego and Shanghai are no more and India emerges as a global power, both in terms of its military capabilities and its mediating authority. (The U.N. Security Council even relocates from New York to New Delhi.) “This conflict hasn’t felt like a war — at least not in the traditional sense — but rather a series of escalations,” an influential former Indian official declares near the end of the novel. “That’s why my word is ‘tragic,’ not ‘inevitable.’ A tragedy is a disaster that could otherwise have been avoided.”

    By these accounts, the forecast for tragedy is favorable. Allison sees the rise of Chinese nationalism under President Xi Jinping as part of the long-term project to avenge China’s “century of humiliation,” from the First Opium War to the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, and restore the country’s top rank. Both the United States and China view themselves in exceptional terms, Allison explains, as nations of destiny. Washington aims to sustain the Pax Americana, whereas China believes that the so-called rules-based international order is just code for America making rules and China following orders — an oppressive scheme to contain and sabotage China’s pent-up national greatness.

    The extent and durability of that greatness is a matter of disagreement in these books. Allison contends that the economic balance of power “has tilted so dramatically in China’s favor” that American pretensions to continued hegemony are unrealistic. But Brands and Beckley, writing five years later, see a middling Middle Kingdom, a nation that for all its “saber rattling” (an obligatory activity in foreign policy tomes) is threatened by enemies abroad and an aging population and faltering economy at home. “China will be a falling power far sooner than most people think,” Brands and Beckley declare. “Where others see rapid Chinese growth, we see massive debt and Soviet-level inefficiency. Where others see gleaming infrastructure, we see ghost cities and bridges to nowhere. Where others see the world’s largest population, we see a looming demographic catastrophe.”

    Except that those interpretations do not render China any less dangerous to U.S. interests or security. Just the opposite, Brands and Beckley argue. As China sees its window of opportunity closing rapidly, it could decide to make a move now in pursuit of its goals — taking Taiwan, expanding its sphere of influence, achieving global pre-eminence. Thus, the 2020s is the decade when the U.S.-Chinese competition “will hit its moment of maximum danger.”

    Note how Allison believes war is possible because China is on an inexorable path to growth and influence, whereas Brands and Beckley worry about conflict precisely because Chinese power may be waning. This is the occupational hazard of national-security thought leadership: Once you’ve decided conflict is likely, any set of conditions can credibly justify that belief.

    The notion of the American dream is inseparable from the national identity of the United States, no matter that it can mean different things to different Americans. But there is also a Chinese dream, articulated, somewhat amorphously, by one individual: Xi, who is also the general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and the chairman of the Central Military Commission.

    The U.S.-China books devote much attention to the motives and intentions of China’s leader. Allison describes Xi’s Chinese dream as a combination of power, prosperity and pride, “equal parts Theodore Roosevelt’s muscular vision of an American century and Franklin Roosevelt’s dynamic New Deal.” Rudd devotes 11 chapters of his book to Xi’s ambitions and worldview, including his relentless focus on retaining power; his push for national unity, particularly regarding Taiwan; his need to maintain China’s economic expansion; his drive to modernize the military, especially China’s naval strength; and his effort to challenge Western-style liberal norms.

    These goals may appear more attainable to Xi thanks to the “theory of American declinism” that gained currency among China’s foreign policy elites during the Obama years, Rudd writes, particularly after the post-9/11 wars and the Great Recession. The corollary of that theory, of course, is that the time for China’s primacy has arrived. In “2034,” the same view comes alive in a melodramatic monologue by China’s defense minister. “Our strength is what it has always been — our judicious patience,” he declares, in contrast to the Americans, who “change their governments and their policies as often as the seasons” and who “are governed by their emotions, by their blithe morality and belief in their precious indispensability.” In 1,000 years, the United States “won’t even be remembered as a country,” he states. “It will simply be remembered as a moment. A fleeting moment.” In the novel, China seizes its moment to try to end America’s moment. Instead, both moments come to an end.

    In “Party of One: The Rise of Xi Jinping and China’s Superpower Future,” Chun Han Wong, a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, notes that the Chinese president has no deep animosity toward the United States and in fact has some affection for American culture. When Xi was vice president, Wong writes, he sent his daughter to study at Harvard, and he has shared his affection for American movies like “Saving Private Ryan.” Of course, a Chinese president’s fascination with a film about brutality, heroism and loss in a past world war may signal something less encouraging than the strength of America’s soft power.

    Wong explains how Xi has hardened his control over the Chinese Communist Party with anti-corruption purges and has deployed state security and surveillance to suppress any threats to China’s stability and, more to the point, to his power. The president is an “ardent nationalist,” Wong writes, one who is “stoking a sense of Chinese civilizational pride,” among his country’s leadership and people. Xi has made a more robust military “a centerpiece of his China dream, demanding that the armed forces be ‘ready to fight and win wars.’ ” It doesn’t take much sleuthing to imagine who the opponent in such wars might be. Xi’s assertions of a rising East and a diminishing West “has become an article of faith within the party and beyond,” Wong writes. “Questioning such views is almost tantamount to disloyalty.”

    Brands and Beckley are less fixated on Xi; they see China’s revisionist project as long predating China’s latest leader. “America has a China problem, not a Xi Jinping problem,” they write. But they might find validation in Wong’s reporting. By centralizing so much power and control in himself and by governing through fear, Xi “may have become the weakest link in his quest to build a Chinese superpower,” Wong writes. Scared of disappointing Xi, the state bureaucracy becomes paralyzed, while the party is so animated by a single personality that any potential successor could struggle to lead it.

    “Xi’s China is brash but brittle, intrepid yet insecure,” Wong concludes. “It is a would-be superpower in a hurry, eager to take on the world while wary of what may come.”

    Throughout these books on China and the United States, scenarios of war abound, while paths to peace are less obvious. Allison pines for the era of Washington wise men like George Kennan, George Marshall, Paul Nitze and other Cold War luminaries. The United States requires not one more “China strategy,” Allison admonishes, but serious reflection on American objectives in a world with a rival that could become more powerful than the United States. “Is military primacy essential for ensuring vital national interests?” Allison asks. “Can the U.S. thrive in a world in which China writes the rules?” We need the big thinkers, he writes, because “destiny dealt the hands, but men play the cards.”

    Brands and Beckley are wise to point out, contra Allison’s Thucydides trap, that countries can be rising and falling at the same time and that moments of great geopolitical peril happen not only when a country is on the rise but also when its ambition and desperation come together. Unfortunately, their practical proposals are obscured by the self-help buzzwords of the national security set. “The key is to take calculated risks — and avoid reckless ones,” they advise. And “Danger-zone strategy is about getting to the long game — and ensuring you can win it.” Brands and Beckley even call for Washington to deploy “strategic MacGyverism — using the tools we have or can quickly summon to defuse geopolitical bombs that are about to explode.” (Translation: Wing it and hope that someone supersmart will step in to fix any crisis.)

    Adding “strategic” to any foreign-policy lingo immediately gives it a loftier vibe, of course, and Rudd is a master of this approach. In “The Avoidable War,” he invokes strategic perceptions, strategic adversaries, strategic equations, strategic logic, strategic thinking, strategic community, strategic direction, strategic offramps, strategic language, strategic literacy, strategic red lines, strategic cooperation, strategic engagement, strategic temperature and a joint strategic narrative — and that’s just in the introduction.

    No surprise, Rudd’s plan to avoid this avoidable war is something he calls “managed strategic competition.” It involves close and ongoing communication between Beijing and Washington to understand each other’s “irreducible strategic red lines,” thus lessening the chance of conflict through misunderstandings or surprises. (Rudd likens it to Washington and Moscow’s efforts to improve communication after the Cuban missile crisis.) Under managed strategic competition, both sides could then channel their competitive urges into economics, technology and ideology and their cooperative needs into arenas such as climate change and arms control.

    Washington may be employing some form of Rudd’s playbook. Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, and Janet Yellen, the secretary of the Treasury, have recently visited China, and John Kerry, the special envoy for climate change, arrived this week. “We believe that the world is big enough for both of our countries to thrive,” Yellen said at a news conference after her meetings. Except thriving is no longer either side’s sole objective. Thriving under whose leadership and under whose terms? The Biden administration has imposed restrictions on the sale of semiconductor technology to China and is planning additional measures, whereas Chinese hackers recently penetrated the email account of the secretary of commerce, Gina Raimondo, who has been critical of China’s business policies — all reminders that economic tensions have ways of spilling beyond the purely commercial realm.

    Even Rudd admits that his preferred approach may just temporarily forestall an eventual conflict. He also acknowledges that managed strategic competition would require “unprecedented bipartisan consensus” among the American political class to ensure continuity regardless of the party in power. Normally, the need for bipartisanship only guarantees the failure of any Washington initiative, but China has been one of the few areas of consistency across the Trump and Biden administrations. In a recent and much-discussed Foreign Affairs essay titled “The China Trap,” Jessica Chen Weiss, a former senior adviser with the State Department’s policy planning staff in the Biden administration, notes that the current U.S. president has “endorsed the assessment that China’s growing influence must be checked” and that on Capitol Hill “vehement opposition to China may be the sole thing Democrats and Republicans can agree on.”

    The trap Weiss foresees is not China tricking the United States into conflict, which is what happens in “2034.” Rather, it is that Washington, understanding nothing but a zero-sum world, will accept that conflict with China is inevitable or necessary. In other words, bipartisanship may be required for peace, but it can also lead to war.

    Weiss proposes meaningful U.S. discussions with China’s leaders not merely about how best to communicate during a crisis, “but also about plausible terms of coexistence and the future of the international system — a future that Beijing will necessarily have some role in shaping.” She calls for “an inclusive and affirmative global vision,” which sounds nice but is never explained in detail. “The United States cannot cede so much influence to Beijing that international rules and institutions no longer reflect U.S. interests and values,” Weiss argues. “But the greater risk today is that overzealous efforts to counter China’s influence will undermine the system itself.” It is the kind of distinction that can be parsed only in hindsight: Make sure you go far enough, but just don’t go too far.

    In one of the disquisitions on world affairs and national character that crop up throughout “2034,” a Chinese official concludes that the United States suffers not from a lack of intelligence about other countries’ intentions but from a lack of imagination about how those intentions translate into actions. Judging from these various books, however, it seems that American and Western thinkers are perfectly capable of exercising their imaginations. That might be part of the problem. Writing recently in the journal Liberties, Ackerman wonders if a new world war becomes likelier when the generation that remembers the last one dies out. “Without memories to restrain us, we become reliant on our imaginations,” he writes. So far, though, the imagined scenarios for war are more persuasive than those for peace.

    These need not be the only stories we tell. “China is like that long book you’ve always been meaning to read,” a U.S. intelligence official tells Brands and Beckley, “but you always end up waiting until next summer.” This is the summer I finally picked up that book. I hope there will be more to come, books in which the stories of peace have at least a fighting chance.


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